With that immaculately worn sari, the bindi never out of place and the cheerful countenance that masked a silver-tongued orator, Sushma Swaraj was an embodiment of the quintessential Indian woman who made it big in politics, rising through the ranks and leaving an imprint in public life, meeting its rigours with grace and determination. Her passing away on Tuesday night, barely a year after the death of BJP patriarch Vajpayee, marks a cusp in the transitional stage the BJP leadership finds itself in.
She cut her teeth in politics, as most leaders of her generation, opposing the Emergency. As a lawyer, she defended George Fernandes, lodged in jail in the Baroda dynamite case, and even campaigned for him in Muzaffarpur, an election that Fernandes won from behind bars in 1977. Long before Haryana came up with the slogan of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, Swaraj blazed a trail, becoming a minister at the age of 25 in the Devi Lal Cabinet before joining the BJP in 1980. Ideologically, she remained committed to the BJP’s core principles, congratulating the Modi government for abrogating Article 370 hours before her death, something she had advocated strongly. Contesting the Bellary Lok Sabha election against Sonia Gandhi, she had vowed not to let an ‘Italian woman’ become the PM. Despite her political leanings, she continued to be seen as a liberal at heart. She shone as a parliamentarian, pepping up her oratory with analogies to mythology, forcing the then Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma to tell her not to make her speech so interesting.
The highs and lows of public life were in evidence, but as the External Affairs Minister, she made a difference by reaching out to Indians in distress overseas. Her departure comes at a time when her party is sensing change. The old guards have been replaced. Already distanced from political life, the party will find new leaders to fill the void but being a woman of substance is one credit that will be difficult to take away from her.